How to grill food properly
By Blake Eligh
on June, 07 2010
Ah, the idyllic days of summer – warm, sunny days, kids splashing in the wading pool, bacteria multiplying on your dinner plate. Not part of your dinner plans? Think again.
Each year, Canadians suffer through an estimated 13-million bouts of food poisoning. Undercooked foods and poor food handling are the culprits, helping to spread foodborne bacteria and parasites like E. Coli, campylobacter and salmonella to unsuspecting diners. These micronasties cause everything from tummy upset and vomiting to fever and diarrhea, and can even lead to hospitalization or death. Probably not what you were hoping to dish out at your annual family barbecue. Lesleigh Landry knows a thing or two about barbecuing and food safety. With a background in cooking and biology, the Toronto food consultant and mom barbecues all summer long on her backyard charcoal grill. Here are her tips to avoid culinary catastrophe at your next cookout:
Buy it fresh
Your neighbourhood butcher can cut meat to order and is more likely to be able to tell you where the meat came from. But if you shop at a giant grocery store, let ‘Best Before Dates’ guide your decision, along with common sense. For fish, smell is key. Fresh fish and shellfish should smell like a nice day at the ocean, never ‘fishy’. Meats should be a nice red colour – greyish ground beef indicates exposure to the air, which can hasten degeneration. Be especially careful with chicken, which easily carries pathogens. Look for shiny, intact skin and stay away from anything that looks dodgy.
Buy it last
Make the grocery or butcher your last stop, so you can get perishables into your own fridge without delay. Bacteria grows fastest when food is in the ‘danger zone’ between 4°C (40°F) and 60°C (140°F). Just two hours in this temperature zone can cause the growth of dangerous bacteria. Load up on meats, chicken and fish at the end of your trip, so it doesn’t sit in the cart for 40 minutes while you’re walking around the store. In the humid summer months, tote a cooler bag to keep food safe until you get home.
Once home, store raw meat, fish and chicken on the bottom shelf of your fridge to prevent spread of bacteria. You don’t want steak juices dripping onto your carrots! Stash the packages on baking trays to contains drips to avoid leaving behind any pools of bacteria when you take the item out. Keep your fridge at 4°C (40°F) or below to keep foods from spoiling, and pay attention to those best before dates. Foods with the shortest shelf life include fish and shellfish. You want to use that by the next day. Ground meats should be used within two to three days, while larger cuts like pork chops, chicken breasts or steaks can hang around for up to four days, depending on the package dates. If you plan to keep items longer, tuck them into the freezer until you’re ready to cook.
If you do freeze your BBQ-bound goods, make sure you take them out with enough time to safely defrost in the fridge. Placing frozen goods in a cold water bath and changing the water every 30 minutes can speed the process, but don’t thaw food on the counter or under running water. Part of the food might be frozen, while the outer edges, which thaw faster, may reach unsafe temperatures. This can contribute to bacterial growth. Using the fridge method, small items like steaks, chops or chicken breasts thaw in 24 hours, while larger items like whole chicken or a shoulder roast will thaw in about 48 hours.
Keep it clean
Washing your hands is vital to keep bacteria at bay. Scrub with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds before you begin food preparations, and every time you handle raw meat, poultry, eggs or seafood. To prevent cross-contamination, keep your food prep surfaces and utensils squeaky clean, too. Don’t prepare salad on the same surface where you just prepared raw chicken. Designate separate cutting boards – one for raw meat, seafood and poultry, and another for fresh produce. Wash all cutting boards and utensils in hot soapy water, and keep a spray bottle on hand with a homemade solution of one teaspoon of bleach mixed with three cups of water to spritz over counter tops touched by raw foods.
Remove food from the fridge about 20 minutes before grill time – long enough to let the meat warm up a bit, but not long enough to put it in the danger zone. This is a great time to add a flavour marinade. Tougher cuts such as flank steak should soak in tenderizing marinades in the fridge. If you plan to use leftover marinade for basting or dipping, cook it first to kill any bacteria. Pour marinade into a saucepan over medium-high heat, bring to a boil, and simmer for about five minutes. Even better, make extra and keep it separate.
Whether you’re cooking with gas or charcoal, preheat your grill on high, then scrape it down to remove any charred bits from your last cookout. Use the blade end of your barbecue scraper, and avoid using the metal bristles, which can detach and transfer to your food. Once free of debris, lightly oil the grill with a paper towel dipped in vegetable oil to prevent food from sticking. If you’re cooking something fatty, keep a spray bottle of water to tame flare-ups. Once you get cooking, you’ll need plenty of platters – one for the raw food, and another for cooked food when it comes off the grill. Never reuse the plate that you used to transport raw food. Ditto for barbecue tools such as tongs and forks. If you’re cooking kebabs, use bamboo skewers. The metal ones heat up quickly, which can lead to uneven cooking. Remember to soak skewers in water for at least 10 minutes before threading on food pieces. Place a strip of tinfoil between the exposed ends and the grill so they don’t burn. As you cook, check for doneness with a digital thermometer (see temperature guide). Fish is done when it is easily flaked with a fork, while shellfish is ready when it turns from translucent to opaque. And while pieces of beef or lamb are safe to eat if cooked rare or medium-rare, ground meats need more time on the grill as the grinding process can spread any surface bacteria through the whole mixture. Revised guidelines for cooking pork means it’s fine to serve pork tinged with pink in the middle, as long as it has reached the proper temperature. Avoid overcooking food. Charred or blackened food doesn’t taste great, and can contain a side order of carcinogens.
Wrap up leftovers as soon as the meal is over. To help food cool and get
out of the danger zone quickly, stash in a single layer and refrigerate
promptly. Pitch anything left out for longer than two hours (or one
hour on hot, sunny days). Wrap leftovers in tinfoil, which will contain
leaks and keep everything fresh. Eat any leftovers within four days (or
one day for seafood).
By Blake Eligh|
June, 07 2010